Did I like Jethro Tull in the seventies? No, not really. Do I like them now? A mighty yes to that one....
This Was (1968)
This was (indeed) Jethro Tull’s debut album, from 1968, and it was a fine rock-blues album free of much, if any, “progressive” characteristics. For me, that can only be a good thing. A bit like the debut albums from Yes, The Grateful Dead and Ten Years After, it is nothing like the group’s later material. This is largely due to the blues-jazz influence of guitarist Mick Abrahams, who later went on to be a member of Blodwyn Pig, I believe. There are not many vocal duties for Ian Anderson on this album, which I do not mind, as his voice always slightly irritated me. He was better off just playing the flute. Having said that, many consider him one of rock's great vocalists, so what do I know. Overall, this was a really impressive debut and, although it was. Apparently recorded on a really low budget, the sound is truly excellent.
Stand Up (1969)
Despite the departure of guitarist-vocalist Mick Abrahams due to that old chestnut, musical differences, this second Jethro Tull album, from 1969, still carried some bluesy influences although Ian Anderson's folky proclivities were surfacing rapidly, but not, as yet, the dreaded prog rock symptoms. It was released in an intriguing time - pre prog but post blues boom and psychedelia thus making for a nice mix of styles. It is a fine folk-blues-rock album, make no mistake. Reasons For Waiting is classic acoustic and flute early Jethro Tull. For A Thousand Mothers also displays the same characteristics as indeed does the excellent non-album single, and the group's only big hit, Living In The Past. Both of them have that flute-rock sound that the Tull made their own. No-one else did it or even attempted it. In that respect the band were quite unique. Once more, I find that this is a surprisingly impressive, enjoyable and innovative album. It is not too proggy so that suits my tastes. It is a nice piece of late sixties rock - loose, fluid and musically interesting. You know, I have to say that I have really enjoyed properly checking out albums like this - I only really knew Living In The Past. Where have I been all these years, eh?
Ian Anderson said that this, Jethro Tull's third album, from 1970, was a "guitar riff album". He was no doubt taking influence from contemporaries like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Cream and Jimi Hendrix and the album is once again more rock than it is prog, and as you know that always gets the thumbs-up from me. It many ways, though, it is a transitional album between blues rock Tull and pro rock Tull. After this came the prog stuff....although the next album could still rock some.
As albums labelled as “prog rock” go, this is one of the better ones. It has a pleasingly resonant rock feel to it and a nice lack of quasi-classical keyboard indulgence. It is more of a rock-folk album, for me. It has surprised me in my genuine liking for it. My lasting memory of this album, from 1971, is that, while attending "house assembly" at my boys' grammar school, one of the older boys (one Chris Best - a geeky, long-haired boy - if I remember rightly) had managed to persuade the Housemaster, Mr. Glover, a grandfatherly old war veteran, to let him play the first track, Aqualung, to us all. Best said that it should make us focus our minds on the problem of the old and homeless, as that was what the song was about. I can still see poor old Glover's stony but bemused face as singer Ian Anderson ranted on at the song's subject - "you poor old sod". Now, Glover was actually a most kindly man, so he wasn't angry, he was just nonplussed by it all. So was I. Why couldn't they have played us some T. Rex. Anyway, as I said, the album was written as a sort of vague concept on homelessness, religion, neglect and poverty. Anderson's wife had taken some photos of homeless people in London and this had inspired him. It is a bit of a rambling affair, but it is sort of ok in places and, although proggy in style it has some robust acoustically-backed rock parts, as well as showcasing Anderson's trademark flute. The afore-mentioned title track, Aqualung, is somewhat lacking in cohesion, for me, although its stronger rock parts are thumpingly excellent. Its hard-hitting lyrics make it somewhat different from your average fantasy-inspired prog song. The mid-song guitar and drum interplay is great. The excellent album ends with Anderson recalling his schooldays on the equally riffy Wind-Up, showing that the album is not quite as acoustic as it has often been described as. There was some delightfully chunky stuff on here. Good one.
Thick As A Brick (1972)
Apparently, with several prog rock bands going big on "concept" albums featuring lengthy, side-long behemoths instead of tracks, Ian Anderson - once a folky blues rocker, now considered a proggy - decided that "if they wanted a concept album, then that was what they would get". He duly, with his trusty band, released this two track monster of a prog rock cornerstone. What was quite unique about this was that, although there was Yes and ELP's side-long compositions, there really wasn't much else around like this, not at all. Compare this with say, David Bowie or T. Rex's three minute songs of the time and you have something utterly different. You would have thought that it would be the last thing that an old punk-new waver like me would want to listen to, but, guess what - I bloody well love it! I have really surprised myself with that but it is most certainly true. The whole thing is a masterpiece of musical sequences now released in superb, remixed format (by remixer par excellence Steven Wilson) which boasts a simply sensational sound. I won’t bore you all by analysing every last little bit of the album, so I will just overview it. In true prog style you get short passages that merge into each other but are often markedly different, although they all merge together perfectly with a beautiful cohesion. What you don’t get is proggy Keith Emerson-style keyboards but instead we are treated to a wealth of Anderson flute, riffy rock guitar, lovely deep bass lines, folky acoustic guitar, folky vocals and suitably incomprehensible lyrics. Although there are obvious prog characteristics in the album’s conception, for me it is a creation that veers towards English folk rock, very much betraying Anderson’s taste. It was no surprise that a few years later the band would release a full-on folk album. In the meantime, I seriously love this and am happily surprised to be admitting it. Part One is better than Part Two, though.
A Passion Play (1973)
After their slightly tongue-in-cheek, but highly enjoyable venture into prog rock conceptry on 1972's Thick As A Brick, Jethro Tull attempted to repeat the experiment the following year, without quite the same level of success. It has suffered critically, in comparison to its predecessor, probably correctly, but it is certainly not all bad. Not at all. It is an enjoyable mix of atmospheric English folk and classical influences merged with a muscular rock foundation. As on the previous album, the sound quality and musicianship is excellent. I know what people mean, though, it does not have the appeal of Thick As A Brick but still has its moments. As with TAAB too, I find it difficult to analyse each separate part of the album, other than to say that it has a nice cohesion to its disparate parts and should not be dismissed out of hand. Overall, the album's sound has a progginess to it, but there is also a brooding, essential folkiness there that I really like. The guitar sound is very Steeleye Span and there is a certain beguiling, dark intrigue to its ambience that makes several listens advisable. It was actually quite a brave creation and again, I find myself really liking it, as with the previous one, though, more on part one than part two. It is strange, however, to think that in 1973 when this came out, it was the year of Aladdin Sane, Roxy Music's Stranded, Mott The Hoople's Mott and Stevie wonder's Innervisions, yet there was also oddball stuff like this around, to which I paid no attention.
War Child (1974)
After two innovative proggy concept albums, Jethro Tull returned nearly eighteen months after the controversial and indulgent A Passion Play with this comparative return to a more traditional rock song format. Many would say not before time, either. The production leant heavily on strings, rather like The Electric Light Orchestra, too. This was an odd time for one-time prog rock darlings, 1974, the initial fascination with prog had gone and punk was still a few years away. Avant-garde art rock groups like Roxy Music and Cockney Rebel were becoming popular , along with the afore-mentioned ELO so Ian Anderson touched on this with this album, although it didn't become as popular as those artists' work. Tull were becoming old hat, fast, despite their loyal army of long-time fans.
Minstrel In The Gallery (1975)
The orchestrated strings used in 1974's War Child had gone on this critically-praised offering, replaced by acoustic guitars and a string quartet, merged with chunky heavy guitars, harking back to the band's 1979-71 sound. There is some fantastic rock to be found on this album but, as with most of Tull's post-1971 output, it stands alone, culturally, not really like any of its contemporaries. Whatever, once again, I find myself really liking it. Minstrel In the Gallery begins in slow acoustic guitar and vocal fashion, before breaking out into some superbly heavy riffage. The guitar and drums interplay at four minutes in is excellent, augmented perfectly by Ian Anderson's trademark flute. This is a fine example of strong Jethro Tull rock, showcasing their very uniqueness. We also get the album's only concession to the old prog days with the suite of several short songs that is Baker St. Muse. The first part is engagingly melodious rock and thereafter we continue in a largely rocky vein, the suite is Tull's best extended composition since Part One of Thick as A Brick, for me. Beneath the album's rock veneer, there were folky influences coming to the surface once more, something that would continue.
As punk was the brash music style on everyone's mind in 1976, Jethro Tull, perversely, put out an album of songs intended to form a musical. Oh dear. It was a completely incongruous release and has remained largely ignored. At the time it was panned as being completely culturally irrelevant, correctly so. That doesn't mean it should be dismissed out of hand, however. Listened to in isolation, ignoring cultural aspects, it is not actually too bad. Put aside also the album's muddied, incoherent "concept" (about an ageing rock star) and take it for what it is - twelve shortish, concise and snappy rock songs. Just because it wasn't punk didn't mean that it automatically had to be shit - that was one of the unfortunate critical byproducts of the zeitgeist of 1976-78. The album has started to tail off a little in its second half although the jaunty, acoustic rock of Strip Cartoon ends it on a positive note. Of course, this album just sounded out of place in 1976-1977 but it in 2021, it sounds fine and was a quite different Jethro Tull album - not blues, not lengthy prog, not folk. The cover was awful, however, wasn't it?
Songs From The Wood (1977)
Jethro Tull changed their style quite a few times during the seventies and, at the height of punk, they released this lovely album of authentic English folk-rock, to considerable success. Ian Anderson is pictured on the cover as a woodsman tending his fire and the whole album is bucolic in ambience, dominated by Anderson's rustic flute. I love it. That is not surprising as I love traditional British folk rock. Songs From The Wood begins with Steeleye Span-Fairport Convention a capella rural English vocal introduction before it bursts out into a thumping piece of flute and drums-powered piece of vibrant folk rock. Forget their mid-seventies lengthy prog rock excursions for a minute, in many ways, this is exactly what I feel Jethro Tull should be. Check out Ian Anderson's superb flautism (is that a word?) on this. More archetypal Tull can be heard on the acoustic-bass-flute melody of Jack-In-The-Green and Cup Of Wonder is more full on rock but still retaining its folky feel. The piano-driven bit is excellent then we get another outstanding flute solo, backed by poppy handclaps and Anderson sounding positively rejuvenated. Great stuff. Ring Out, Solstice Bells is played every Christmas in our house and has been well-loved for years, so I find it nigh on impossible to play it at any other time of year, so I won't. Needless to say, though, the song is quirkily magnificent. Fire At Midnight is a quiet, reflective drum and flute lament to end this most enjoyable on. I can't praise this album highly enough so I will stop before I get boring.
Heavy Horses (1978)
After the slightly unexpected success of 1977's Songs From The Wood, Jethro Tull released another album, oblivious to contemporary musical trends, that was said to the second in their trio of folky offerings. Personally, I think it is far less folky than its predecessor and is somewhat difficult to define. It is, for sure, Tull's most easy on the ear release, featuring some lovely melodies. It really is most pleasant. It was, of course, utterly removed from much of the music that 1978 had to offer but what the hell. Fair play to Ian Anderson for sticking to his gamekeeper's guns and putting it out. The album's centrepiece is the eight minutes plus of Heavy Horses, a touching tribute to those lovable large working horses sung in true folky style. It is a classic of its type, proggy in its changes of pace but still eminently folk rock-ish, as is the endearing closer Weathercock, with its killer guitar and flute parts. Look, I can't say too much more about these songs other than they are just very amenable and provide a fine listen. Are they folk? Pop? Soft rock? Who knows, it is an impossble to categorise album but all the more interesting for it. Were Tull an anachronism by now? Yes, for sure, but no matter. Who cares anyway. I certainly don't now. In 1978 this would have meant nothing to me, thankfully my perspectives have changed.
This will be the last Jethro Tull release that I shall cover and it forms the last of what was said to be their "folk rock trilogy". Personally, I feel it is only Songs From The Wood that stands out as being a real folk rock album, the following two are folk-influenced but often containing heavier rock and sometimes sounding even a bit pop rock-ish. It was also the last Tull album to feature the classic seventies line-up. Once again, the album was completely at odds with much contemporary music. It is certainly no 1979 album in its sound but as with all their stuff, it has travelled well, and sounds vibrant and fresh in 2021.